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UPCOMING EVENTS

It’s Time for News Radio to Clean Its Clock

News radio is an interruptive format that swiftly moves listeners from one informative topic to
the next but over the years we’ve gotten bogged down with an insufferable amount of clutter: too many commercials, endless promos and teases, and pointless production pieces. All of it
interrupts the flow and cuts into the interesting information you promise to provide.

Let’s clean the clutter, starting with the anachronistic basis for it all: your hourly format clock.

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I’ve never understood why radio stations root themselves to the clock. The show starts at the top of the hour and you bury your boring features at the end. Why? Why should the top of the hour be considered the beginning of anything? It’s not how people live their lives. Radio isn’t like TV where shows start at specific times. Hell, TV isn’t that way anymore.

But with news radio, the top of the hour always begins with a self-aggrandizing, overly-produced introduction to a program I may have been listening to for half an hour already. This is especially true with morning shows, where simple logic would suggest that people trying to get to work by the top of an hour begin listening at various times before then.

Who even owns a clock radio anymore?

The 21st century is nonstop. There is no daily news cycle, no beginning or end to anything but
news radio programmers still think of time in divisions of hours, minutes, and seconds. We still draw empty circles depicting analog clocks to plot hourly radio formats.

On news and talk stations, the top of the hour almost always begins with the hourly network
report. It’s the biggest of big-time radio, steeped in tradition, professionally detached, global. In other words, it sounds nothing like your radio station in your unique market and it contains the least interesting content you have to offer.

We cling to the networks at the top of the hour for their prestige, because that’s just how we’ve always done it. Any national or international stories of real interest to Americans, the latest Trump-Biden court decisions, for example, will be well covered in talk shows and you’ll probably want to drop it into your local programming, too. How about a one-minute segment twice an hour, 60 seconds of just the big national and world stuff, in 10-15-second boil-in-the-bag headline segments? I’m just spitballing here. You’re the programmer.

In my heretical news radio mind, the networks do great journalism but they still sound flat,
stuffy, and old-fashioned. They don’t sound like anything else on my station. I’ll dump the top-of-the-hour five minutes and cherry-pick the network sound bites. We’ll deliver them ourselves.

While I’m carving up your format and trying to get you thinking outside the box, do you need
traffic reports every ten minutes? Or, at all? Heresy, I know. Catch your breath and read on.

When we had real-time airborne local reporters telling us what they were looking at it had a gee-whiz factor and the information mattered because it was live, local first-hand reporting. I could imagine the scene as it was being described. Now we have reporters in booths looking at
computer feeds and doing shotgun-style traffic reports for multiple cities. Words without
pictures.

I knew an L.A.-based traffic reporter who did reports for Salt Lake City though she had never even been there. These so-called “real-time traffic” reports are nearly always recorded and delayed for playback. Does this practice serve any purpose at all except to deceive listeners?

Not incidentally, traffic reports are a prime target for AI exploitation. How difficult can it be to
attach state and local transportation agency traffic data to AI voice-to-speech generators? For all I know this is already being done. You can argue it’s cost-efficient but as a longtime morning news host/anchor/personality, I despise it. One of the greatest assets to any morning news team is the interaction between news and traffic people.

When Amy Chodroff and I started working together at KLIF a dozen years ago we had that human contact with remarkable radio veteran Bill Jackson doing traffic from an adjoining studio. Bill wasn’t just a voice, he was a talented news radio veteran and a valued part of our show. He was so good the company, Cumulus, put two more stations on his plate, ripping a valued team member away from us.

As hosts, Amy and I had to assume Bill wasn’t able to listen to the show anymore because he
was too busy gathering and preparing his reports for the other stations. Then he was shipped out of the building to do his work from home which made his insights and witty exchanges
impossible. We couldn’t talk to each other off the air. We couldn’t exchange glances, smiles, and hand signals or bump into each other in the hall. Our show suffered and our audience became a bit more detached.

Bill Jackson, real name Dale Kuckelburg, was also significantly detached from his career.

But I digress. The biggest problem with traffic reports is the shotgun approach I mentioned,
telling everybody in our listening area driving to their unique destinations how traffic is snarled thirty miles away. Good god, we have apps in our cars that do a much better job in real time.

How about the weather? What the hell, we’re swinging the ax here. Let’s be realistic.

There isn’t a day in my life that I don’t wake up with a fair idea of what weather I should expect. I don’t need someone on the radio telling me to carry an umbrella. If it’s iffy the immediate and highly local details are now available at the touch of an app. When the weather becomes of critical and life-threatening importance it’s a major news story and that’s when local radio news shines, making it the center of our continuous attention, not just a regular feature at scheduled times.

It’s your radio station, do what you think is best. I’m only suggesting that you might want to
reevaluate all the things we’ve all taken for granted for far too long.

News radio has always been an interruptive format. We promise listeners “the news you need” in the time it takes them to drive to work. They understand that they’ll receive useful and
interesting content in exchange for frequent subject switching and sponsorships. The great news stations know how to capitalize on that agreement but too many have sold their souls to
commercial clutter that chokes a news team’s ability to serve the promised meal.

As if 22 minutes of inane and repetitive commercials per hour aren’t bad enough programmers, struggling to do their work in a hurricane of increasing spotloads, add to the clutter with recorded promos that simply beseech listeners to keep listening while offering nothing of substance. Meanwhile, the same programmers tell talent to tease, tease, tease the subjects they’ll talk about six, twelve, and twenty minutes from now.

I know the business reality. Radio — especially news radio — is struggling to meet the profit insistence of corporate boards and the overhead needs of staying afloat locally. But at some point, we must answer the question, who do we have to serve first, our clients or our audience?

Station managers and their corporate masters have to stop issuing profit mandates without
offering programmers the opportunity to do their jobs, to provide more valuable content while
limiting commercial minutes, sponsorship rhetoric, and eliminating distracting bells and
whistles.

Clean your clock. Stop filling empty circles with stuff that made sense 50 years ago but is merely clutter today.

The only way to think outside the box is to get rid of the box.

Dave Williams
Dave Williams
Dave Williams spun top-40 hits in Sacramento before RKO Radio snagged him as Program Director for K-Earth in L.A. and WHBQ, Memphis. He ultimately began 40 years as morning news host at KFBK, KFWB, KNX, and KLIF, earning ten AP awards with his partners as Best News Anchor Teams in California and Texas. Dave now hosts and produces a podcast featuring some of the biggest names in radio programming and management. You can find it on YouTube and top podcast audio apps at Conversations.buzz. Follow Dave on Twitter @RadioDave.

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